Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 24, June 8 to June 14 2008

Hebrews 6:4-12

A Sermon

By Rev. Scott Lindsay

Thomas Jefferson had a very interesting Bible. What made Jefferson's Bible so interesting was not anything to do with its binding, or age, or the materials with which it was made. The strange and curious thing about his Bible was not what it contained but what it did not contain. If you and I were to open up Jefferson's Bible today and start thumbing our way through, what we would discover is not the conventional order or even wording that we have come to know but, instead, a "cut and paste" version of the Scriptures, comprised of all the parts of the Bible that Jefferson had no quarrel with and which he personally felt best represented what he called ‘Jesus' moral code'.

Now Jefferson may have been a great statesman. I am no historian so I cannot say. Nevertheless, whatever sort of statesman he was, he was clearly not a Christian man - and not just because of his Bible but because of lots of things he said, including denying the divinity of Christ. Clearly, Jefferson had a woeful understanding of Christianity in general and of the nature of the Scriptures in particular. Rather than seeing the whole of the Bible as coming to us under the superintendence of the one Holy Spirit, he saw it as a not-very-well-assembled collection of fairly random documents - which bore no divine authority but which did offer some helpful guidelines in the area of morality.

Well, Jefferson's approach to dealing with difficult Bible passages, while fairly simple and straightforward, was, in the end, very silly and certainly not an approach that is open to the committed Christian who takes seriously the truth that "all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable".

This morning we will be looking at what Christians over the centuries have agreed is a difficult passage of Scripture. I cannot tell you whether or not this particular section of Hebrews "made the cut" in Jefferson's Bible - no pun intended. However, I can tell you that it has made the cut in your Bible. These may be difficult words but, at the end of the day, they are God's words. That means that they are intended for us.

Now, not surprisingly, and because of the troubling nature of these words, scholars and theologians have often disagreed over their meaning and application. The disagreements are certainly understandable, even if not always justifiable, because, as we will see in a moment, the language is difficult. The author paints with fairly bold colors here and the extremity with which he writes is enough to cause any Christian, no matter how mature, to have to stop and think.

Therefore,, as we begin our time together this morning, we need to acknowledge that we stand on the threshold of a challenging text - a "fearful passage and it makes the heart tremble" - as one preacher puts it (Ligon Duncan).

Fearful or not, we cannot go around it. We go cannot over it, and we cannot go under it. We have to go through it. But before we go any further, let's pray together.

(Pray and read text):

Hebrews 6:4-12 (ESV) For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

Those of you who have been with us recently will know that we have been working our way through the Book of Hebrews. Moreover, on our way through we have learned a few things about the background and context of this very important part of scripture.

As you will recall, in this letter the writer of Hebrews is addressing a group of people who have come out of a Jewish background, who are currently part of a Christian community, and who have professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. However, in the face of increasing difficulties, including persecution, many of these people are being tempted to abandon Christ and to go back to their former Judaist beliefs and practices.

To address this, the writer of Hebrews has demonstrated, repeatedly, the superiority of Jesus to anything and everything that they might be tempted to trade Jesus for. Most recently, he has turned his attention to showing the superiority of Jesus' high priesthood to that of the Old Testament. In addition, this discussion concerning Jesus' priesthood is so important for his argument that the writer of Hebrews takes five chapters to make his point!

Well, over the past few weeks we have seen the first two installments of this extended discussion. However, after launching into his discussion, the writer of Hebrews, as we saw last week, suddenly pulls up short in verse 11 of chapter 5 and takes a detour. As he begins to tell his readers about Jesus' priesthood and his connection to this mysterious person known as Melchizedek, whom we will learn about later — but after all that, the writer of Hebrews feels the need to stop and issue a warning to his readers.

One reason for the warning is because his readers, instead of going on to maturity, have become "dull of hearing." They are sluggish and complacent and, as a result, now find themselves in the place where they have gone backwards as regards the faith. One consequence of this is that they now struggle to understand things that they should not struggle to understand. Further consequences of their drift into sluggishness include their struggle to make good moral choices and a failure to exercise a personal ministry of the word - to the detriment of the kingdom's work.

The other, and more substantial reason for the warning is because the path they are on - if they continue on it - will lead them to something far worse than mere dullness and sluggishness, as bad as that is. It will lead them to RUIN. They will no longer be mere drifters from the community of faith, they will be outside the community of faith, and not just outside of it, they will be beyond any hope or possibility of returning to it.

Therefore, the writer has moved from concerns over his readers' drift to concerns over their potential apostasy - the abandonment of the faith, the walking away from the community of believers and the wholesale rejection of Christ. Moreover, at the very beginning here, it is important to underline what the writer is and is not talking about here. He is not talking about people losing their salvation. He is talking about people who walk away from the faith. Now on the surface those two things might sound the same. However, they are not. We will see why in a moment. Nevertheless, in order to do that, we will have take a few minutes unpacking these verses a little bit more.

Look back at chapter 6, verse 3 for a moment. After talking about the matter of his hearers being dull of hearing, and then after talking about their need to get out of this cycle of going back to the basics and, instead, move on to deeper things - after all of that the writer of Hebrews says confidently "this we will do if God permits." Now, why does the writer say that sort of thing?

Well, he says "if" because of the reality of the things he is about to say to them. He says "if" because he knows that, for some within the community of faith, their becoming "dull of hearing" is not a temporary detour from which they will eventually return but is, in fact, a permanent trajectory adjustment, a change of plans, a heading off toward an entirely different future. For those who are on this permanently changed path, for those in whom God is not bringing to completion the good work he started (Phil. 1:6) there will be no coming back. There will be no being grounded again in the basics of the faith and then moving on to maturity. There will only be a move into greater and greater apostasy.

The thing that makes this so very difficult is because this journey into apostasy is not being made by people who are distant from the things of the Lord, or who are relatively ignorant of Christian things. This is NOT like the situation in which the apostle Paul found himself when he was converted and about which he speaks in 1 Timothy 1:13 when he writes:

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

Paul's blasphemy and persecution and insolence were not coming from the lips and life of a man who had once been part of the confessing community of Christ's people, but from one who was ignorant and unbelieving as regards the Christian faith. Therefore,, for Paul, there was ample room for pardon and grace to be extended to him, in spite of his insolence. To be sure, what Paul did was bad. But it was not treason.

That is not the situation that is being described here. Nor is the thing being described here some momentary dalliance with unbelief and doubt or the after-effects of a person's struggle with a particularly egregious sin. What is described here is a wholesale rejection of Christianity, a deliberate and willful rejection, a holding in contempt the person and work of Christ himself. And this contemptuous casting aside of Christ does not come at the hand of a stranger but by a person who at one time was intimately, even experientially, acquainted with the Christian faith at a number of levels - emotionally, intellectually, even quite possibly supernaturally. Listen to the words and phrases used by the writer of Hebrews to describe the former position and privilege from which the apostate person in view here has fallen:

....For it is impossible to restore again to repentance....
Before we think about the significance of this phrase it is important to make a preliminary observation, namely this: The ESV translation with which we have been working, while on the whole a much better translation than any we have had before does not, in my judgment, prove as helpful here as another translation, the NIV. And this is simply because the NIV actually follows the order and emphasis of the Greek here more carefully than the ESV such that the NIV translation of verses 4 to 6 reads:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because {6 Or repentance while} to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
The reason this matters, in my opinion, is because while the ESV translation seems to suggest that the apostate in view here is one who once repented - in the salvific sense of repentance, the NIV translation, more correctly in my view, retains more of the ambiguity of the original Greek. In the NIV translation, it is possible to see this as talking about people coming back to a repentance they had previously exercised, but it is equally possible to see this as talking about a person coming back and then repenting - for the first time. In the context of the overall passage, as well as the wider New Testament, it seems to me that this second reading is more consistent and, as such, "repentance" ought not be a reality that we attribute to the person who has fallen away in these verses. That helps, but it does not get us out of the woods. There are other, equally challenging phrases here, including this one:
....those who have once been enlightened....
The writer of Hebrews describes the apostate as one who at one time had insight and understanding, as regards the Christian faith - a person who could have likely given a pretty good summary of some of the fundamental truths that undergird the Christian belief system. Another phrase is,
....who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit....
While some commentators separate these two phrases, it seems to me that they go together and are describing the same reality - experiencing the Holy Spirit's power and influence, possibly even exercising a particular gift for a time. Still another phrase is,
....and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God....
With this phrase, the writer of Hebrews seems to be referring to a genuine experience of the power, authority, beauty, and likely simply the practical relevance of the scriptures.

The final phrase used to describe the pre-falling away condition/position of the apostate is that he/she is one who has "tasted the power of the age to come" which is likely a reference to the signs and wonders, including the miraculous healings, that were part and parcel of what God was doing in the early days of the church.

Now, as one writer has said, each of these phrases, all by themselves, are challenging enough. As a group of descriptions applying to one and the same person, they are fairly formidable and describe someone with far more than a passing acquaintance with the community of faith. Indeed, the language here is so strong that it has, over the centuries, given rise to some fairly strong disagreements over its implications. Typically, the perspectives on this passage tend to fall into one of three major camps.

The Arminian/Wesleyan View

One group of interpreters has looked at these verses and concluded that the language is so strong that we have no choice but to conclude that what is being described here is the falling away of someone who was a true Christian, one who was truly regenerate by the Holy Spirit, who was a beneficiary of Christ's saving work on the cross. The difficulty with this view is that it makes a mess of other passages which clearly talk about the eternal security of the true believer or the certainty of God's finishing what he starts, such as John 10:27-28 or Philippians 1:6.

The Hypothetical View

Another group of interpreters looks at this passage and says that what you have here is simply a hypothetical argument, and not one that really applies in the real world. But Philip Hughes has fairly devastatingly addressed this viewpoint saying:
The situation is hardly eased by the suggestion....that the author is expressing himself in a merely hypothetical manner....his warning about the impossibility of restoration of the apostate does not answer to reality and is little better than the invention of a bogey for the purpose of frightening his readers into being better Christians but....the end does not justify the means, and to resort to subterfuge and deception and that too within so solemn a context, would be subchristian and incompatible with the whole tenor of the epistle. What, in any case, would be the point of warning them of the danger of apostasy and then assuring them that, after all, they are in no danger at all?
As another writer has observed, suggesting that these verses are a merely hypothetical argument would make about as much sense as posting a sign in the desert that said, "Beware of Sharks".

The Reformed View

The third group of interpreters would all agree that, despite the extremity of the language used, what is being described here is not a falling away from faith, but a falling away from the community of the faithful - and the particular benefits that went with that. In other words, the apostate person described here, while being up to his/her eyeballs in the community of faith, and while having experienced a number of blessings such as enlightenment and understanding, some experience of the Holy Spirit's presence and power, seeing something of the power of God's word, and even being a witness to the power of the Gospel breaking out in particular manifestations of signs and wonders - while having all of those experiences, the person in view here is not one who, in God's eyes, has been made right with him by the saving work of Christ. This is not one in whom the Spirit has worked the miracle of regeneration and inward transformation that no power in the universe can undo. What is described here is precisely the situation depicted in 1 John 2:18-19, which reads:
Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
This third view is, in fact, the one that I would suggest is the most faithful interpretation of these admittedly difficult verses. There are still legitimate questions that might be asked. The church needs to continue to work to deal with some of the more difficult aspects of these verses.

Still, the reality being described here is one that, while difficult to accept and even more difficult to see played out, is nevertheless not one that is foreign to the scriptures. There are a number of passages which point to the sorts of things being spoken of here.

For example, in the Old Testament, we have the example of Saul, the first King of Israel. Saul prophesied, by the Spirit of God. He was set apart to lead the people of Israel. Yet we are told quite explicitly that the spirit was taken away from Saul. Commenting on this incident, John Owen writes:

It is a fearful thing to realize that a man may experience the extraordinary operations of the Holy Spirit and yet not experience the saving operations of the Holy Spirit.
An example from the New Testament is Judas, the Apostle. Thinking about Judas' situation, the scholar Philip Hughes offers these helpful comments:
NO defection is more startling than that of Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, no less, who for the duration of our Lord's ministry was blessed with the special privilege of being constantly in his presence, enjoying the warmth of his friendship, receiving his sublime instruction, and witnessing his wonderful works, and yet who sold his heart to Satan and betrayed his Master he had followed so long and so closely.....furthermore, the apostate condition of his heart, though known to Jesus, was not even suspected by the rest of the Twelve, to whom it was unthinkable that any of their number could prove to be a traitor.
And there are other places to which we might turn, such as the sobering words found in Matthew 7:
Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'
So, when we see these sorts of realities, and look back at the description of the apostate person depicted in these verses, it really gives us a lot to think about, doesn't it? Apparently people who will ultimately show themselves to be unbelievers are capable of an enlightened understanding of the Christian faith. Apparently "tasting the heavenly gift and partaking of the Holy Spirit" - at least at some level - is not the exclusive domain of the genuinely converted. Apparently hell will be populated by people who have "tasted the goodness of God's word and the powers of the age to come". Apparently, kings, and apostles and even workers of miracles are now numbered among those who did not, and have not, and will never experience God's redemption and be reconciled to their Creator.

What do we do with verses such as these? What does it all mean? Well, before we can rightly see what it all means, we need to see what it all meant - what the significance of this was for the original hearers. Moreover, if you have been with us for at least part of this series then you will know that the writer of Hebrews seems to have in mind an audience that is familiar with Judaism, and with the Old Testament, at least at some level. The specific concern that the writer of Hebrews has is that his readers' dullness of hearing will result, at least for some of them, in a return to the things that they knew and practiced before.

In addition, in order for them to do that, they would have to first deny what they had previously affirmed. They would have to deny that Jesus was who he said he was. They would have to stop believing that Jesus' life and death had any sort of ultimate influence on their standing before God. Even more, they would have to say that for Jesus to say the things that he said about himself and to assume the prerogatives for himself that he did - e.g., the ability to forgive sins - all those things they would have to say were blasphemous and evil. In short, they would have to say that Jesus and his works were, ultimately, of the devil.

For those who make that sort of wholesale, willful, rejection - there is no hope of repentance - which is both a theological statement, as well as a historically descriptive one. The writer of Hebrews, surely, is not just speaking theoretically here but pastorally as well. He is describing not only what is true but also what he has seen. He has seen people walk away, cursing the Lord Jesus as they went. Surely, he has been broken-hearted at the sight of that.

However, in spite of the very real possibility of apostasy for his readers, the writer goes on to say, in verses 9-12, that he actually has good hopes for them. For him NOT to warn them of the dangers of apostasy would have been irresponsible. However, his own intuition and confidence is that his readers - at least most of them - are not going to continue in their dullness but are, in fact, going to turn around. He believes that they are truly saved and that this will be demonstrated, in the end, by their persevering faithfulness.

And his convictions here are not simply the product of wishful-thinking or Pollyanna blind optimism - his encouragements here are a consequence - at least in part - of his readers' track record. He has seen and knows of their good works and their love for one another - which is not just a distant memory but is still being demonstrated among them, and within them. And please note that the phrase, "and God is not so unjust as to overlook your works" - is not a statement about the meritorious quality of their works and love but rather it is a statement about "the evidential nature of their works and love" - as encouraging proof that God is in fact working with them a work which, as Paul says in Philippians 1:6, God began, and which therefore he WILL bring to completion.

Therefore, while these words would have been difficult for the original readers to hear, they would have, ultimately, been an encouragement to them because of the writer of Hebrews' good hopes on their behalf.

Moving on from what the passage meant, we can say that the warnings and encouragements found here have a similar significance for God's people now. Moreover, it seems to me that there are at least two dangers for Christians in our own day. One danger is to not take this passage seriously, to dismiss it as a hypothetical argument at best, presenting no real danger for the genuine Christian. Like the seriously misguided TV preacher who said, "If you have made a profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, you can live like the devil for the rest of your life, and still be saved, even though God may have to take you home early if you continue in that way." Now I am sorry but that is just so stupid it is painful. However, more importantly, it is profoundly unbiblical thinking.

Nevertheless, that sort of nonsense is taught - even though it flatly denies the presence and ability of the Holy Spirit to finish the renovation he started in the hearts of those he has caused to be "born again." At any rate, that sort of understanding amounts to an outright dismissal of this passage, and others like it.

However, you simply cannot dismiss these realities. This is a real warning for every single person who belongs to the community of God's people - every member, every church officer, every pastor, every missionary. No member or category of member within the community of faith gets a hall pass here. Look again at the language used. What this sort of language is saying, in essence, is that even the people that you would find it most difficult to believe would ever walk away - even those people cannot afford to sit on the presumptive laurels of their assurance and think that they are beyond the reach of the dangers warned of here. Indeed, I think that is precisely why the writer has used the language that he has.

He deliberately uses language that is so strong that it would trouble even the most committed Christian. He is purposely, and knowingly, pushing the envelope here. Why? Because the writer does not want anyone - no matter how committed and faithful they may seem - to ever take lightly their position before the Lord. He doesn't want any drifting, dull Christian to get to the place where he/she does not take seriously their drift, who thinks it a small thing, who does not heed the warnings and calls of his brothers and sisters because she is so sure that apostasy is simply not possible for her.

So, this is a real warning, a fearful warning that ought to rightly raise serious concern in the life of every believer who is adrift, or who is watching another professing believer who has become dull and sluggish, and is slowly drifting away.

The other danger in approaching this passage, is to confuse sin and apostasy. Nevertheless, they are not the same thing. As one commentator puts it:

The reference in the passage before us is not to sin as it manifests itself in the lives of Christians, but to a particular disposition involving a repudiation of grace so grave that it has the effect of permanently severing those who display it from the body of Christ. Yet even an act of adultery coupled with murder, as in the case of David, does not necessarily betray an attitude of apostasy. That David's true attitude, despite the enormity of his sin, was not that of apostasy is plain from the content of Psalm 51.
Therefore, clearly God's people can sin, even sin quite grievously, and yet not fall into the category of sin and unbelief described in Hebrews. And so the distinction between sin and apostasy is an important one to maintain, particularly for Christians who have an especially sensitive conscience or who have an ongoing struggle with depression. Christians who fall in these categories will have a tendency to lock on to passages like this and will convince themselves that they have committed the unpardonable sin - when they have done nothing of the sort - and even with many other evidences of God's grace clearly present in their lives. Further, they fail to recognize that their concern over whether they have gone too far is, in fact, a good sign that one's conscience is not so seared and hardened as to be oblivious to what is going on.

Therefore,, at the end of the day, here is what these verses, practically speaking, are calling us to do:

1) If you recognize you are adrift - then you ought to be duly concerned and ought not assume that you can just disregard passages like these.

2) Let your concern drive you back to the cross, back to your knees, and to the side of a fellow believer who can help you bear your burden in a Galatians 6:1 sort of way, and who can remind you of the things that he/she sees that are evidence of God's on-going work within you by his Spirit, who can remind you of the difference between sin and apostasy, and who can remind you of the amazing depth of God's grace and mercy and forgiveness.

3) If you recognize someone else is adrift, go to them and, while recognizing your own weakness and the log in your own eye, gently call them back to the Lord. If they respond, then that is a great and satisfying thing to watch and be part of. If they do NOT respond, then you may need to take them to this very Hebrews passage and remind them that this is not just a theory but a real possibility for them. You may be the one that has to look them in the eye and say to them that if they continue on the path they are taking, there is only misery and judgment at the end of it. That is never an easy thing to say to anyone. And you will have no joy in saying it. But sometimes it is precisely what needs to be said and, if God permits, to be heard.

Do you need pray now?

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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